Medicare, Medicine and the Mad Monk

Tony Abbott

The federal government’s chief head-kicker, Tony “the Mad Monk” Abbott, is our new health minister.

I’d like to feign surprise at this unlikely appointment, but it’s been on the cards a while. Abbott knows bugger-all about the health system, but he does know how to stay on message, something his kinder, gentler predecessor couldn’t quite get the hang of. And with health policy being the one area in which the Liberals trail the ALP, something had to give.

Howard’s reshuffle on Monday afternoon intensifies the smell of an early election in the air. While the Poisonous Dwarf and other election tragics insist that there won’t – can’t – be an election before the second half of 2004, if Howard could call one today he would. The sooner the better.

Whenever the election is held, Abbott’s appointment signals what many of us dread: the health election. The short man has spent his whole life trying to achieve just a few small goals. The GST was one of them. Winning “the cultural wars” was one of them. Ending Australia’s pro-refugee and pro-Asia immigration policy was one of them. And destroying Medicare is one of them.

Medicare offends Howard for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s good value, especially for the poor. This flies in the face of right-wing economic thought. Although Australia’s health system is far from being a state-run monopoly, the government funds most of it. This creates a dilemma for conservative governments, who want to create growth (and the health sector is one of the fastest-growing, especially in a maturing economic environment) but want to curtail government spending.

The solution, of course, is to privatise the health care sector altogether; to introduce a US-style system where only the wealthy get the health care they need.

That option, while it would give Howard and his cronies a policy woody, remains a tough sell electorally.

The alternative is to run the existing system down to the point that the public can be convinced that it’s “unsustainable”, “unaffordable”, “in crisis”.

Familiar words?

Having convinced the great unwashed that the system is falling down around their ears, the next step is to suggest that the solution is to move “those who can afford it” into the private sector, so that the public sector can operate as a “safety net” for those who can’t.

This is an example of the kind of doublespeak it takes years of effort to master: “ensuring the affordability of Medicare” is code for “creating a two-tiered system”. The plan is to get the people whose opinions matter to accept that the public health care system is only there for the miserable poor.

Combined with an overarching attitude that the poor are poor because they deserve it (they are either lazy, or weak, depending on how much of a fascist you want to be) this lays the groundwork for The Great Social Experiment.

TGSE is the destruction of community (the proponents of the experiment will waffle on about families being the fundamental unit of society, but they hate community) and the elevation of the market to cult status.

What this means is turning the whole of humanity into a pyramid scheme. As long as you’re close to the top of the pyramid, it’s a great scheme. But of course most people are at the bottom (that’s why it’s a pyramid, stupid).

When the last federal election degenerated into a right-wing feeding frenzy fought on race and immigration, we thought the end must be nigh, and we were right.

It’s probably too late to prevent our descent into individualism, distrust, resentment and fascism, but when the health election does roll around, whether that’s in a few months or a year, I can only hope that at least one of our political leaders can stop squabbling with his/her own mates, stay on-message and let the great unwashed know what it is they are voting for.

Just pray it’s not Tony Abbott.

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